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Away in a Manger—From Icons to Paper Nativities

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Through the ages, inspired iconographers set down the Good News of the Gospels—“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. Which is Christ the Lord”—in icons of great beauty. Surely, these venerable holy images of Christ's Divine Birth also inspired the artists—and artisans—that brought us our beloved paper nativities...

The Nativity, a Byzantine icon from the Monastery of Stavronikita, Mt. Athos (The Holy Mountain), Greece. Note the multiple scenes—the washing of the Babe, the temping of Joseph by the devil, the approach of the Magi, the announcement of the Good News to the shepherds—that often characterize Byzantine iconography.

Framed by a rich border of motifs from nature, The Nativity unfolds in the priceless Gospel of Nikephoros Phokas, part of the Byzantine treasures of the Monastery of Great Lavra, Mount Athos. (Available as a Premium Download). 
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As I am slowly, but surely, transferring Crèchemania's old site, I unearth long-forgotten—and admitedly once-hard-to-find pages, like “Away in a Manger.”

A tumultuous History

Who could guess, looking at a beautiful icon of The Nativity, that it once was enveloped by a tumultuous period of history, a time of religious persecution and bloodshed?

It’s a story of emperors, patriarchs, monks, believers, and unbelievers, a story of the triumph of faith and the human spirit, and it all began on the glittering stage that was Constantinople—present-day Istanbul—the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Constantinople, jewel in the crown of Byzantium, was adorned by many beautiful churches. You stepped into any one of them and the Oriental splendor of early Orthodoxy surrounded you. You didn’t have to be able to read a word—as so many could not—to know your faith. Man’s redemption through the Birth, Passion, and Resurrection of our Lord covered icon stands, walls, and towering domes that hung as if suspended, heaven-like, from above.

In private homes, both rich and poor, icons were illuminated by the warm light of oil lamps. It was unthinkable for most people to contemplate Orthodoxy devoid of these images, but not for the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, who, in the first quarter of the 8th century set out to destroy them.

The political and theological issues that drove the Emperor to this collision course with his subjects and his Church is a matter of conjecture: did the faithful, as it was alleged, exhibit signs of idolatrous worship (latreía) towards icons instead of venerating them (proskínisis)? Were, perhaps, the Monophysite heresy and its followers responsible, since they believed only in the Divine Nature of Christ and thought it sinful to represent His Human Nature? Did the influence exerted on the Byzantine Empire by neighboring Islam and its prohibition of the depiction of the human form impact the course of events? Or was the Second Commandment, with its proscription against graven images, the cause for the Emperor’s fury?

Whatever the reason, it is certain that Leo III issued an imperial edict sanctioning the smashing of icons. The destruction came to an end when a pious and courageous woman ascended the throne after the death of her husband, the Emperor Theophilus. She put an end to the iconoclasts’ devastation, and, on her command, icons long hidden were held high in procession through the streets of Constantinople. To this day, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the church commemorates Empress Theodora’s Anastílosis (The Raising) of the Icons.

Unfortunately, by then, countless precious relics of faith and art had been chopped, burned, trampled, and desecrated. With them was destroyed a priceless legacy of Byzantium’s religious, cultural and artistic history. Surviving masterpieces of the era, and examples of the flowering of iconography that followed, hint at the treasures that were lost. One example is the Gospel of Nikephoros Phokas, part of the collection of the Monastery of the Great Lavra at Mount Athos. It contains superb examples of Byzantine iconography including The Nativity shown on this page (see image above, left).

Byzantine iconography

What a rare art it was! It is difficult to imagine: how it was possible for the iconographer’s hand, however gifted and inspired, to define, in two-dimensional space, the indefinable spiritual sphere intersecting that of earth? That is exactly what is accomplished in an image that pictures the words of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew describing the miracle unfolding in the hills of Judaea:

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger...

The vivid narrative of the Gospel springs to life in the depiction of the Nativity from Stavronikíta Monastery, the Holy Mountain, Greece (see image, top of page), which is available as a Free Download. In a rocky landscape dotted with shrubs, stands a small wooden manger. The Divine Child, in swaddling clothes, lies in the crib while the ass and ox look on. The Virgin, wrapped in a cloak, serenely reclines, while St. Joseph is pictured further away, in the foreground. He rests his head on his hand as if contemplating the miracle to which he is a witness.

To the right an angel points heavenward and speaks to an old shepherd who’s resting his hands on his crook. It seems as though heaven, represented by a faint circle at the top, has drawn nearer to earth, as a host of angels bring tidings of great joy:

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Known as a fátni, this vintage 1950s Greek paper manger unfolds to reveal the wonder of the Nativity in five colorful tableaus of the story of Christ’s birth.
Above, the Star of Bethlehem shines, its rays descending down into the cave. The Virgin averts her eyes from the light of the star, and by her posture shifts the focus of the approaching Magi to her newborn.

Bearing gold, frankincense, and myrrh the Three Wise Men draw near on bended knees.

Behold there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

These tidings of great joy seem to be falling on deaf ears: perched on a rock, a young shepherd, unaware, is playing his pipe. Is he an allegory for oblivious humankind, asleep in their beds?

The story of the Nativity was written (as icons are said to be) not only in Constantinople, but wherever the candles of Orthodoxy burned bright: in Ethiopian churches carved out of solid rock; in the Cappadocian caves of holy hermits; and, in the new Renaissance of the Orthodox faith and art, Imperial Russia.

Despite the glories of the Byzantine tradition, the East did not have a monopoly on The Greatest Story Ever Told. In the West, with the blessing and, patronage, of the Popes and other Medieval and Renaissance princes, devout masters (Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi) and secular geniuses (Giotto, Botticelli, Mantegna, Raphael, Van Eyck, da Vinci, and Titian) picked up their brushes and left Western Civilization a cherished legacy.

Apart from the gradual disappearance of the distinctive haloes (heavy, solid gold circles in Byzantine iconography; coronet-like and sometimes eliminated altogether in the West) and the introduction of perspective, the basic elements of the Nativity remained unchanged in compositions entitled “The Nativity;” “The Nativity and Adoration;” “The Adoration of the Magi;” “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” or “Madonna and Child.”

Cloistered monks and prayerful scribes, also used their quills and brushes to illuminate manuscripts and devotional Books of Hours. No lesser artisans toiled to bring the Nativity to life by embroidering it on vestments, casting it in silver and gold, chiseling it in wood and ivory, setting it in mosaics, weaving it in tapestries, and carving it in miniature nativity tableaus.

Believed to be the oldest crèche in the world, this marble group of figures (attributed to the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, and dated around 1289) is found in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. (Photo © 2007  
Three-dimensional crèches

These scenes, or crèches as they became known, were encouraged by a Western church inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi. Brother Francis, it is said, recreated a stable in order to emphasize for the faithful the reality of the Nativity.

This marvelous tradition has endured the passage of time. For a brief moment each Christmas season, the images of the East and West meet in the Medieval halls of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, a majestic mosaic reconstruction of Christ from the Deeisis (Supplication) mosaic of Aghia Sophia looks down on an eighteenth-century Neapolitan Crèche.
This delightful Praesepio, or manger scene nestled on the elaborate base and in the branches of a gigantic Christmas tree, features columned ruins, village homes and squares, and a multitude of angels, shepherds, wise men, and animals. It’s all there: turbaned Magi with their attendants, bolting horses, pilgrims and their dogs, and everywhere camels, sheep, lambs, and goats. Crèches such as this, whose figures feature exquisitely sculpted faces and hands and fantastic folk costumes, were not within the grasp of most people. However, the common people had their church crèches and liturgical plays.

Much later, lay people also had cardboard nativity scenes. How did paper crèches become popular? One possibilty is that the theatrical miracle plays were re-enacted at home using a box for the stage, and miniatures for the principals. If that is the case, one can see the leap from shadow-box crèches to so-called theater crèches that fold flat and miraculously open to reveal the wonder of the Nativity.

It was an evolutionary process. The story goes that Sir Henry Cole ran out of time to write and send his Christmas cards. So Sir Henry, the founding Director of what became the Victoria and Albert Museum, commissioned a Royal Academy friend to engrave and colorize his Christmas greetings. Sir Henry’s idea caught on, and with the issue of the English penny postage the year before, a new tradition was born. On the same year that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, Christmas cards were born.

Crèche sheets such as this made a wonderful present for Greek children — A typical 1950s Greek Fatni (manger) by N. Neiros, published by Astir in collaboration with the Literary and Historical Greek Archives.  
Paper Nativities

It was simply a matter of time before publishers of Christmas cards began printing crèche sheets for children to cut out and assemble. Pop-up books and fold-out crèches were also produced, and some of these small crèches, in glorious relief and color, are truly a sight to behold.

Many can now be found in museum collections such as the German Christmas Museum or the incredible collection of L’ Institut Canadien de Québec Collection featured on these pages.

Not all paper nativities were designed as theater crèches. A fine example of a stand-alone scene resides in the Museum of Art and Popular Traditions in Innsbruck, Austria. This beautiful Tyrolean Crèche was painted on cardboard by a father-and-son team of artists, Georg and Felix Haller. It is rendered in the Baroque style, and dates from 1824.

It is a small masterpiece of its genre, and was designed to be displayed as its sculpted cousins, in a story-telling, diorama arangement. Now available as a paper model to cut out and assemble (from the French Collection Grand Angle, L' Instant Durable), it features an arched ruin that drips with moss and forms the backdrop for the scene of the Nativity.

Even if you never intend to pick up scissors and glue, you'll appreciate this lovely crèche. With over seventy colorful figures and trees, and beautiful background scenery, it's a worthy example of the rich folk art tradition of Christmas scenes.

Breeches, silk stockings, and a feather in his cap—a nattily-dressed courtier, just one of the fantastic figures in the Christmas Crib, Collection Grand Angle (L' Instant Durable, France).  
It is interesting to note that the Tyrolean Cèche illustrates how the story of the Nativity was embraced not only in terms of faith but also art. Its figures are clad in local folk costumes, and the scenery reflects the artists’ countryside. Further north in Germany and England we find mangers covered with snow and draped with icicles. No matter what the artistic style, there was invariably emblazoned on the manger and the words that have echoed throughtout the centuries: ‘Glory To God In The Highest!’

Or Dóxa en Ypsístis Theó Kai Epí Gís Eiríni!, as in the case of the first crèche I ever saw, nestled among school books at the Dernikos bookstore on Ermou Street in Pyrgos, Ilias, in the early 1960s.

I was mesmerized! I had never seen anything like it. Unlike the Tyrolean crèche whose individual pieces were designed to be supported by tiny stands and displayed among a three-dimensional background, this Greek crèche folds flat. A simple opening motion is all that’s required to display the elements of the Nativity on five planes. The first depicts the opening of the cave, adorned by a wooden framework, a green curtain, and a large earthenware jar. A shepherd boy and two sheep direct their attention to the inside.

Above a slatted roof, amidst swirls of clouds, an angel sings. He is accompanied by two other angels playing the violin and lute, while two cherubs hold up a banner proclaiming, in Greek, ‘Glory to God in the Highest And On Earh Peace.’

The second plane features, a kneeling shepherd and a magus clad in ermine.

The third plane consists of a young shepherd holding a lamb, and two wise men, one kneeling the other standing in a turban and long, starry cloak.

The fourth holds the Holy Family and a shepherd carrying a basket with a pair of doves, symbols of peace.

The fifth plane shows a distant view of Bethlehem, complete with a palm tree. The fifth plane folds forward at each end at right angles to creates the sides that picture the requisite ox and ass.

This crèche bears a remarkable resemblance and was possibly was based on an Italian crèche of the 1930s printed in Milan and found in the remarkable Santi Auguri!, a book of crèches, Christmas cards, and devotional calendars (Edizioni Essegi).

Whatever its provenance, I knew when I first saw it that I had to have it. But how? There weren’t many ways a Greek schoolboy could earn spending money in those days.

Luckily, Christmas carol singing came just in time. After going from house to house on Christmas morning, asking ‘Na ta poume?’ (shall we recite?), and getting the nod, I’d begin:

The fine Tyrolean Crèche, the Museum of Art and Popular Traditions in Innsbruck, Austria—over seventy colorful figures create a pageantry of The Nativity—Christmas Crib, Collection Grand Angle (L' Instant Durable, France).  
Kalín iméran árhondes,
An íne orismós sas.
Christoú tin Thían Génnisin,
Na po st' arhondikó sas...

Good morning my Lords,
If it is your bidding,
I shall tell of Christ’s divine birth...

Normally I’d be singing the kálanda with friends. But this year, I couldn’t afford to divy up the take. A pocketful of mostly penindarakia (half drachma) and drachma coins, with some diphraga (two drachmas), and a rare talliro (five drachmas) later, I had enough to buy my crèche.

Have I held anything in my hands, apart from my first puppy, that I considered so dear? This paper crèche has been a part of my life ever since. It’s a small miracle that it has survived at all after all these years. It has accompanied me on my family’s many moves to and from Greece; to my college dorm room; my army quarters; and has come to stay in our Midwest Victorian home.

It lies folded in a drawer most of the year. But when the days begin to grow shorter and the snow flakes start to swirl covering everything in a fresh blanket of glistening snow I know it’s time to unfold it. After all these years it has lost none of its power to inspire, and I still stare at it with the same wonder I did as a child.

Because its story, you see, is timeless.

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